Lisa Spence emerges as fresh voice among Vigo Democrats

Tribune-Star/Austen LeakeNewly elected: Lisa Spence was selected to fill the at-large seat on the Vigo County Council during last week’s Democratic party caucus.

For more than a year, Lisa Spence often appeared before the Vigo County Council and Vigo County Board of Commissioners questioning the decision-making processes regarding a new county jail.

First as an active member of Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County and then as president of the Taxpayers Association of Vigo County, Spence often asked questions about financing and the impact on taxpayers.

Now, Spence will be taking some of those questions, given her selection by Vigo County Democrats to fill the remainder of Brendan Kearns term on the Vigo County Council, which opened when Kearns was elected in November to the board of commissioners.

Last week, a party caucus selected Spence over some better-known names, such as Clyde Kersey, a former county councilman and retired long-time state representative; Rick Burger, a former council president; and Jeff Fisher, Terre Haute's fire chief. In all, six candidates vied for the at-large seat, with Spence elected on the second ballot.

Spence became a Vigo County resident in 2011, when she was named associate vice president for academic affairs and chief information officer at Indiana State University.

Spence said she sees her selection as both an example of civic and community engagement.

"Community engagement gives one a feel for the spirit of the community. It was through my involvement with volunteers at the Swope [Art Museum] and the [Terre Haute] Humane Society that I began to see and understand the very active and generous community we have here," Spence said.

For her, Spence said that "civic engagement imparted a still-developing understanding of how local government works and what the projects, opportunities and challenges are. More people are doing this, and becoming interested in how government works, what it is doing, and how it is doing what it is doing," she said.

"Then they begin to know how to take action and have influence. This is what happened here," Spence said. "There is a group of energized people in the community who were interested in certain elements of change in local government — I believe some of those are more communication, more collaboration, better planning — and they worked hard to make this election happen in the way that it did."

She pointed to several groups working toward change — among them Indivisible, Activists Study Hall, Collaborate for Progress and Citizens for Better Government — and says those groups "sparked what happened in the caucus."

In the precincts

Spence's ascension to the County Council likely began in the Democratic primary election in May, when some new blood entered the party.

That's when 64 of 87 precincts — 73 percent — received a new or different Democrat precinct committee member. In the primary election, 12 incumbent Democrats were defeated and 18 incumbents chose not to seek election as a precinct committeeman. There were 34 precincts that were open, as they contained a committeeman who had been appointed.

In 34 precincts in which an incumbent filed to run, 22 incumbents won re-election and 12 were defeated. Of the 87 precincts, only one — 9C — had no candidate file in the primary election.

Contrast that to 2014, when 32 Democrats filed for precinct committee positions and ran unopposed. Only one precinct, 5C, had a contested race. Another 54 precincts had no candidate, with many of those later filed by the party chair.

Additionally, this year brought 82 women to file as candidates for a precinct committee position, with 49 women winning in the primary election.

Heather Hindle was among those women who won election, her first public office as precinct committee person for Precinct 2B.

"I did vote for Spence," Hindle said. "I think she is definitely is a little bit of an outsider, which I think is something we need to kind of shake things up a little bit here."

Hindle said she decided to run for precinct committee after Chauncey Rose Middle School was closed "and I saw how the process worked. We had that school board meeting room packed out on multiple occasions. We did not want the school closed and it didn't matter. It was decided before it was ever discussed in public," Hindle said.

For Hindle, Spence represents a new voice in the county's Democratic Party.

"I talked her and she listens," Hindle said of Spence. "She asks questions if she doesn't understand a situation, and she finds out what she can about it. I like that. I think she is intelligent and compassionate."

Ironically, Hindle said she had no idea that as a precinct committee member, she would be charged with replacing vacant seats for elected officials.

"I just know that people who haven't had a voice need a voice," Hindle said. People need "to get some kind of voice in the Democratic party locally because it seems like the Democratic party is almost calcified here. They are doing the same thing they have always done."

Hindle said she "believes and hopes [Spence] is a voice. When I went to meetings on the jail, the majority of people who spoke said we need a new jail, we know that. We are OK with that, we don't want [inmates] having bad living conditions, but we don't want a huge jail. There are reforms we can make."

However, Hindle said in public meetings on the jail, it appeared to her that "it did not matter what we were saying. They [county officials] had their minds made up. You have to start somewhere to make change, and people like me are not going to start at the top. I work in a factory and my husband is a truck driver. I work weird shifts and I had to get a night off of work just to go vote at the caucus because I work second shift."

"This is important to me," Hindle said of getting a voice in local government. "I was born here. My loved ones are here, my children went to Vigo County schools. Terre Haute is up against a lot, and we have to be careful with our resources. I think the change in the precinct committees shows that there is some movement there to change things."

A 'down-ballot uprising'

Mike Esau, who won election as a new precinct committeeman in Third Ward F in the Primary election, also praised Spence. Esau, like Spence, is a member of Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County and has attended numerous meetings of the County Council and commissioners.

"Vigo County couldn't do any better than to have someone like Lisa on the County Council," Esau said, especially citing Spence's background in accounting.

"She's actually been out there front and center for a little over a year, taking some barks, but people are taking notice that she wants what is good for the county rather than focusing [solely] in the downtown area. A lot of people have been trying to have our officials be more responsive to the those who elected them by being more transparent and accountable," Esau said.

Esau said Spence reached out to precinct committee people and met with many for two to three hours at a time. "She did more listening than talking. What we found out is a lot of people want better things for Vigo County," Esau said.

Asked about the number of new party precinct committee members, Esau said the primary election was a "down-ballot uprising."

But Spence also has garnered the respect of established party members, Easu said. When Spence met with precinct committee members, "a lot of them recognized that she was a person who was going to help the county move forward."

Esau said he hopes Spence's election to the Vigo County Council is the first of more changes for local Democrats.

"I am hopeful. It takes a lot, even though we got the voter turnout up, Democrats overall took a beating in this last election," he said. "All the people I know are still committed in trying to move this thing forward."

'Change more likely, more possible'

Spence said she made an effort to meet precinct committee members, which is something she thinks helped her in the caucus election.

"From my perspective, and from my experience talking with precinct committee people, they mostly just want the local environment to be good, and they want to energize people to take part and be informed and vote, so that good things happen in elections, and they are willing to work hard for that," Spence said.

"As people are more informed and active, and have chances to bring their ideas for the community forward, our local governmental leaders are bound to be influenced. With more different inputs, I think change is more likely and more possible. People can change things.

"Many people don’t believe that, and I understand why they feel that way, but I think we are seeing change happen now," Spence said.

Transparency & process

Getting involved in local government was something Alice Quinlan said she regrets not doing when younger, but like many, was consumed in her work and family.

Quinlan won election in May as a new committee person in Sugar Creek E precinct. Quinlan also said she voted for Spence in the party caucus.

Quinlan said she cast a vote for transparency.

"I think the more progressive folks in the community are saying can't we be more transparent and get more information on a website that people can see. I am all for that transparency, which is why I was attracted to and really impressed by Lisa Spence," Quinlan said. "I heard her in various public forums over the last year or so and met her last summer and I was quite impressed by her. I think that transparency and clarity about the processes, whether they are party or governmental, we all benefit from that."

While she describes herself as "retired and over 75," Quinlan said she seeks "to open up the process and the party and situation to new voices and new ideas and to younger folks and people who can help make our community better. I consider myself part of this grassroots" in local government, she said.

Quinlan said she was "really glad to be participating as a first timer in the party caucus. I watched things very carefully and I think chairman [Joseph] Etling ran a really excellent caucus. It was transparent, it was fair and very clear. I was counting those ballots just as they were counting them off on the side. I think he [Etling] did a fine job of it."

Heavy interest

Etling said as party chair, the turnout of precinct committee members was impressive, as 85 of 87 committee members cast a ballot.

"The significance to me was to have all but two committee persons there," Etling said. "You had a substantially or significantly high percentage of committee people all told, but obviously including the new committee people that appeared at the caucus, so that is a very good and encouraging sign," Etling said.

"My recollection on caucuses, I believe it has always been high, but typically it is 75 to 80 percent" attendance from precinct committee people. "But I think it was 97.7 percent [at the Dec. 6 party caucus]. I think it indicates that our committee persons are definitely engaged in the process and that they are energized and will continue to be active and continue to promote Democratic candidates," Etling said.

On Spence, Etling said "she obviously is going to be able to speak to the issues that she views as being important and will be on the County Council and will be able to present those views.

"She is obviously new to run for political office and obviously she, I thought, got a tremendous ovation from the entire caucus and had strong words for the things she will do on the council. And obviously, there is a lot of enthusiasm and support among all Democrat precinct committee people for her, so that is an encouraging sign," Etling said.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward. Tribune-Star Reporter Dave Taylor contributed to this report.